Twelve years before Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, Toronto-born social psychology professor Lee Ross was studying what he called the false consensus effect at Stanford University.
Ross found that people falsely believe there is a consensus on an issue, even if wider data runs contrary, because those around them think the same way they do. Today we are only too aware of the “echo chamber” of social media, in which users have their views and beliefs “verified” by likeminded people they follow or are friends with.
The response to the vote on Britain’s exit from the EU shows what happens when a false consensus is proved wrong.
Millions of Remainers were so sure the vote would go their way that it was not until after the result was announced that they became active. Some 30,000 people subsequently marched on London in protest and 4.1m signed a petition asking for a second go.
They believed those that voted to leave did so because of the pledge that £350m sent to the EU was going to be spent on the NHS or because they falsely believed Brexit would mean kicking foreigners out. Polling of more than 12,000 people by Lord Ashcroft following the vote, however, showed the majority of leavers voted the way they did because they believed “in the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”.
The false consensus effect is not limited to the public. Experts, largely based in Remain voting London, got it just as wrong. Business leaders were no exception. Two thirds of those surveyed by the Institute of Directors immediately after the vote said it would be bad for business.
Fears, among them, of restricted access to EU workers and increased trade tariffs outweighed optimism about ease of access to labour and trade deals from outside the EU. Three months later, despite a raft of positive data on jobs, spending and exports, many businesses have put a freeze on recruitment while they wait to see what happens.
But the shrewdest businesses have seen the opportunities Brexit presents. We have a government focused on “making Brexit work” and significant interest from media giants who encouraged their millions of readers to vote Leave. A number of major businesses have been pleased to see recruitment announcements that in ordinary times would barely get a mention become large national stories. GlaxoSmithKline, McDonald’s and London City Airport have all seen their announcements getting widespread coverage.
With leaving the EU top billing at the Conservative Party conference this week, Theresa May and chancellor Philip Hammond are on the lookout for businesses that will help them deliver on their pledge to “make Brexit work for Britain”. Companies that are willing to show they are backing this cause will see their efforts paid back in dividends.